Keeping Career On Track When Life Takes A Detour: 3 Lessons From An Accidental Entrepreneur

Whitney Johnson ,  WOMEN@FORBESCo-founder of Forty Women Over 40 to Watch Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Allison O’Kelly, Founder and CEO of Corps Team, didn’t start out with a plan to start up a business.

Most of us don’t.

When most of her acquaintances in the Washington, D.C. area community where she had lived her entire life headed off to the University of Maryland, O’Kelly chose Georgia instead. She wanted to be her “own person.” She studied accounting at the U of G; a rather staid, conventional seeming discipline for someone wanting to spread their wings, but she loved it.

After a few years working as an accountant with KPMG in Atlanta, the love affair—surprise!—was over.

O’Kelly disrupted herself by going back to school. Additional education is a great career pivot, a door opener. It worked that way for O’Kelly; she did her time at Harvard Business School and then bounced to Toys R Us, onboarding in a selective development, leadership training track. After a while she was running a store and then spent a year helping launch the side of the business. Just as she was about to move into a district manager position her first child was born.

She was a relatively recent graduate of Harvard Business School; a high powered, high potential up-and-comer, and a lock for the DM role. She was still based in Atlanta; there were 11 district managers in the southeast U.S.—all of them male.

“My regional vice president very much wanted me to be a district manager there, partially because he was getting pressure that he needed a female district manager and partially because of my background.” She describes her boss and the company as “super supportive” when maternity leave rolled around and she returned to work 8 to 4, three days a week.

But her new little person had an undiagnosed health problem “I realized that even though I was 8 to 4, three days a week—which is unheard of in retail—that…if the three days I was on my kid was sick at daycare, I got a phone call. My husband was then working at McKinsey and was all over the place.”

Calls from the daycare were regular. Baby was sick. “Obviously, that had to be my top priority….I could have been a crappy employee at that point but I’m not that kind of person. I wasn’t willing to be a crappy employee.”

Lesson #1: Always remain discovery-driven. Life throws curve balls.

“I realized it wasn’t about the amount of hours I was working; it was about the flexibility of the hours I was working and I recognized that to get the district manager position I would have to go back to full time and I wouldn’t have the flexibility. It was just too much.”

Her boss wondered what more they could have done to keep her from leaving. “There was really nothing they could do at that moment….I was not going to get what I needed in the role I wanted to be in at that company.”

O’Kelly did what a lot of people who need flexibility do; she improvised and almost accidentally became an entrepreneur.

“I needed some professional outlet….I said, ‘I’m going to take a step back; I don’t know what my career is going to look like, but I know I need something. So I started doing contract accounting….for smaller regional accounting firms and small businesses. I was a sole proprietor and ended up, in a year and a half, getting so much work that I couldn’t handle all of it.

“I’d left a 24 hour a week job and was working 50 hours a week, but it gave me what I wanted. I was completely flexible when I worked those 50 hours. I realized it really was the flexibility I was looking for, not the part time job.”

She tackled her heavy work load by outsourcing some to an old friend from the KPMG days and rebranded her personal business as Mom Corps, and soon had four or five different accountants working on the work that she was bringing in from the clients.

Lesson #2: Unanticipated entrepreneurship can be unexpectedly successful. Additional adaptation may be required.

She realized that companies often struggled to find experienced employees, particularly in certain niches, like accounting, and that many stay-at-home moms didn’t really want to stay home; like her, they needed flexibility that they had been unable to get from their employment. “If they had to make a choice, they were going to choose to stay at home, but that wasn’t the choice they would willingly make if there was a different option.”

Mom Corps emerged in 2005; by April 2006 O’Kelly had received an entrepreneurial mom award from Working Mom magazine that really set things “spinning.”

“I franchised the business and started growing in multiple markets.” In so doing, however, she moved away from the placement side of the business, which was what she was passionate about. Although she grew to 20 franchises, the business wasn’t prospering and she was personally as well as professionally dissatisfied.

“The franchise unravelling, realizing that the grand plan I had was not the plan I wanted; that was very difficult and costly.”

In addition, she found personnel decisions to be difficult and impactful. She hired some “very expensive people early on that weren’t really the right people for the business and I kept them on much longer than I should have, because we had developed personal relationships and I wanted it to work out.”

Ultimately, O’Kelly says she realized that she was responsible for making the business work and made sweeping changes.. “The people side of it was hard. You don’t want to hurt people. But I also felt pretty empowered; I was the victim of what I had created. I had created the monster; I had to fix it.

“I knew at that moment that I was making tough calls to either get in the right place or be done.”

Lesson #3: With the entrepreneur the buck stops here. Tackling the hard decisions and hard tasks—that’s the job.

O’Kelly got in the right place, rebranding again, this time as Corps Team, a “niche supplier of professional staffing.” Mom Corps is now a piece of that business. They were doing a lot of more traditional, 30+ hours a week type of roles—“most of those were 40+ hour a week positions,” rather than the flexible positions that were the raison d’etre for Mom Corps. O’Kelly acknowledges that flexibility is still harder to come by in the workplace than we need it to be. “Small companies are still really good at it; large companies are still really difficult.”

Whitney Johnson is the author of the critically-acclaimed Disrupt Yourself, host of a podcast by the same name, and a co-founder with Christina Vuleta, of Forty Women Over 40 to Watch.


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